The Hebrews were sinners too—Exodus 2:13-14

In Exod 2:11-12, Moses killed an Egyptian who was striking one of Moses’s own people. He meant to act for justice. Unfortunately, however, injustice was not limited to the Egyptians. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn confessed his dismay at his discovery that it was not only his oppressors who did evil. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Sometimes the oppressed share the same values as the oppressors. It was not only Egyptians who were striking Hebrews; the next day Moses encountered two Hebrews struggling and asked the wicked one, “Why do you ‘strike’ your neighbor?” (Exod 2:13, using the same Hebrew term as in 2:11-12). Far from being united against common oppressors, God’s own people were fighting among themselves. (For historical analogies of how devastating this can be, one may think of how European and Arab slave-traders and colonialists encouraged and exploited intertribal conflicts in Africa. European colonialists did the same in the Middle East. Many centuries ago, divisions among Christians also weakened traditionally Christian Mediterranean cultures in the face of their Islamic conquerors.)

Exodus does not inform us why the “wicked one” (Exod 2:13) was striking the other; perhaps he was a Hebrew overseer, but he may simply have been angry. The wicked, however, are not always dissuaded from actions if they lack fear of punishment. The aggressor demands, “Who made you a ruler or judge over us?” Asking who appointed him a ruler may be equivalent to asking whether he was appointed as one of their task masters (the same Hebrew term appears in Exod 1:11). Ironically, Moses would someday appoint leaders and judges over Israel (Exod 18:21, 25; Num 25:5; Deut 1:16).

Questioning Moses’s authority over them, the aggressor reveals that he knows Moses’s crime against an Egyptian (2:14). Thus we read not only of disunity, but also of likely betrayal; not only of Hebrew infighting, but also of one’s willingness to appeal to Egyptian rulers to get one’s own way. Moses may have expected his people to welcome him as a deliverer; some without faith preferred their present arrangements.

(For other posts on Exodus, see